NABOKV-L post 0011567, Sun, 26 Jun 2005 20:35:25 -0700

Nabokov's English reading primer
EDNOTE. Some questions nag at one and ever quite go away. In 1997 I wrote a short piece on Nabokov's early English reading as revealed by _Speak Memory_ and occcasional references in his fiction. The item (with illustrations) may be found on ZEMBLA as "Nabokov's Golliwoggs: Lodi Reads English 1899-1909". The identification of at least one reference defied my best efforts to pin it down. My 1997 message below provides the relevant material from Chapter IV, section 1 of SPEAK, MEMORY. The reading text in question was apparently being used by one of Volodya's early English governesses and I searched sources on such text books to no avail--even going to the vast collection of such materials available for instructing children in Canadian libraries in hopes that English nannies in the outposts of the British Empire and elsewhere probably drew on texts used in English schools. No luck. A few years later, with the help of Saint Petersburg literary historian and Nabokophile Yevgeny Belodubrovsky I ransacked such holdings in the State Library in St. Petersburg. I also circulated the query below on NABOKV-L and other lists. When no leads came in, I decided the reference was perhaps to some "generic" reading primer and dropped the matter.

Today, in my post-prandial browse through the June 10, 2005 TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT (p. 30), I skimmed a short review of Alan Davies' AN EYE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY: THE CAMERA IN AUSTRALIA. There I found reference to "... a shot of the bleak faces on ten Aboriginal children forced into a Queensland mission in 1893. They pose in a classroom while their teacher instructs cursive and spelling using a poster that says, 'Send Ben to bed. He is wet.'" SO--VN's recollection was apparently accurate but I still don't have an accurate citation for the reading primer that I would very much like to see. If anyone has any further information, please let me know. Meanwhile, I'll try some Australian sources.


Date: Mon, 28 Jul 1997 09:09:43 -0700
Reply-To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@UCSBVM.UCSB.EDU>
Sender: Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@UCSBVM.UCSB.EDU>
From: Donald Barton Johnson <>
Subject: Nabokov's childhood reading (fwd)

Subject: Nabokov's first English reader?

I am attempting to identify the English primer from which Vladimir Nabokov
learned to read English circa 1904. He describes it as "a brown volume" in
which the early section was restricted to three-letter words. Its heroes
were Ben, Dan, Sam & Ned: "Who is Ben?" "He is Dan," "Sam is in bed." "Ben
has an axe." Near the text's end a simple story was presented: "One day
Ted said to Ann: Let us---"

These are example sentences Nabokov recalled some 40 years later, so they
may well be "illustrative" rather than accurate quotes. The book is
probably British since his governess was. Although, he refers to it as "my
grammar," the examples lead one to assume it was simply an elementary

I would be most grateful for any suggestions. Is there perhaps a
particular information source about the history of English primers that
covers the turn of the century?

D. Barton Johnson
Department of Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies
Phelps Hall
University of California at Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Phone and Fax: (805) 687-1825
Home Phone: (805) 682-4618